On the top floor of the State of Illinois Building, Governor Thompson’s immense, glass-encased tribute to himself, five members of an Illinois Senate committee sat in a large hearing room one day last month and listened to testimony concerning the erection of yet another immense structure–one that would dwarf this one in both size and cost: the Chicago Bears’ proposed stadium south of the Loop. The chairman of the committee, Senator Richard H. Newhouse Jr., wore a gray suit, a white shirt, and a large, bright yellow bow tie that somehow seemed a bit more festive than the occasion called for. For almost two hours he was the soul of politeness, his huge hands frequently joined in front of his face in an almost prayerful pose. He made only occasional remarks to the witnesses, deferring usually to his senatorial peers.
The witnesses appearing before this body, the Illinois Senate Committee on Commerce and Economic Development, fell into two categories. Some were there to insist that a substantial share of the $1.4 billion to be spent on McDome and the related expansion of McCormick Place should go to minority and women contractors, workers, and service providers. The others were there to assure the committee that women and minorities would indeed receive every consideration–getting possibly as much as 50 percent of the jobs on the giant project. The McDome plan has yet to win approval from the Illinois legislature, so its backers are making generous–some would say extravagant–offers to prove their goodwill and muffle rumblings against the inevitable tax increases required to pay off construction bonds.
Though Chairman Newhouse’s demeanor remained peaceful, he was boiling inside, suffering a bad case of deja vu. During his 24 years in the senate, he had sat through scores of such hearings at which big business and big labor swore their commitment to minority opportunity. And after 24 years there was precious little to show for all the rhetoric–especially in Woodlawn and other ghost-town sections of his south-side 13th Senatorial District. He was finding it hard to keep his mind on McDome when large slices of his community constituted a McDisaster.
And so it happened that when a representative of the U.S. Labor Department, the man in charge of developing minority apprenticeship programs, rose to speak, Newhouse blew his cool. “Tell us, please,” he said, “what is the password? How do minorities get all these jobs? What is the secret? We’d like to know!”
Before the man from Labor could respond, Newhouse went on. “I am very concerned about the exclusionary aspects of organized labor. I’m trying to find jobs for young men and women, and I’m being outrecruited by the underworld! My kids are going to Stateville to get their MBAs. They’re coming out and doing well, in dope and crime and shakedowns . . .”
Many young people, responded the shaken government official, “are not sufficiently educated” when they come out of high school to be competitive. “We have developed preapprenticeship programs–”
Newhouse’s eyes flashed and his hand waved in the air. “Preapprenticeship programs do not impress me,” he said. “What does it take to hammer a nail into a board? We’re not talking here about the education of an astrophysicist. . . . I’m ashamed of what labor is putting up with.” What, he asked the man, are the federally mandated goals for the trades? Twenty-three percent for racial minorities in every apprenticeship program, said the government representative, and 20 percent for women. And what, asked Newhouse, is the sanction for those who don’t comply?
“We reprimand and try to persuade,” said the man.
Newhouse fairly jumped out of his chair. “The Labor Department is a paper tiger!” he said. “My kids don’t have the option of becoming contributing members of a vibrant community. The goals are a disgrace! They have no function but to mislead, to protect some people who are doing evil things!”
And just like that, the storm passed. Newhouse assured the government representative that he did not hold him personally responsible for racial inequities and even called him a “courageous person” for appearing before the committee. The next witness was summoned and the chairman resumed his meditative, listening posture.
With his close-cropped gray hair and long, thin face, 66-year-old Richard Newhouse often looks tired these days. It is the weariness, perhaps, of tilting too long at too many windmills. For sheer perseverance in the fray, few can match Richard Newhouse. He was in the Illinois Senate voting for civil rights legislation, campaigning for black voter empowerment, and fighting the Chicago Democratic machine when Harold Washington and Ralph Metcalfe, those latter-day patrons of black independence, were still taking orders from Boss Daley and voting the party line.
“Eventually, Harold and Ralph saw where the movement [toward black independence] was going and they were able to step in front of the parade at the appropriate time,” says Dr. A.L. Reynolds Jr., president of Ebony Management Associates and a political consultant who has worked for both independents and regular Democrats. “But Dick Newhouse was out there marching before there even was a parade. Independence is not a tactic with him. It’s part of the animal; it’s in his genes. He operates on his own principles, always has.”
“Just look at his record,” says Carol Moseley Braun, currently Cook County recorder of deeds. “He’s been far more productive than any black in the senate. He’s been a stalwart for an entire generation.” For ten years, from 1978 to 1988, Braun was a state representative from Newhouse’s district, and she regards him as a mentor and constant inspiration. “His gospel has always been pretty simple,” she says: “Government can make a difference.”
Al Ragland, who has known Newhouse since 1963 and served as his chief of staff in the late 1980s, speaks in almost hushed tones of his friend. “He’s been a bright, authentic leader,” declares Ragland, “a man who never adjusted to the decadence of the black political tradition. To honor Dick is to honor all of us who strived for political independence.”
A quick glance through the history book suggests such encomiums have more than a little justification. Richard H. Newhouse Jr.: the first black independent (along with Charley Chew) elected to the Illinois Senate; the first black to run for mayor of Chicago; the man who leveraged the Illinois Senate presidency to a black; the organizer of an unprecedented network of black legislators from all over the United States; the only state senator to give his backing to a community-based campaign against police brutality in the 1970s; the one who called for a federal probe of the killing of Black Panther Fred Hampton; the only public official who stood with the Afro-American Patrolmen’s League when it dared to sue Mayor Daley over racial discrimination; the man who crusaded tirelessly against labor union bias at Washburne Trade School. It was he who gave counsel and encouragement to a charismatic young Jesse Jackson when he came to Chicago to organize Operation Breadbasket, and it was he who helped state representative Harold Washington hold his seat in the legislature when the Democratic machine made a major move to oust him.
With that kind of record, it is not so surprising that it was Richard Newhouse–at Harold Washington’s invitation, Newhouse says–standing at the podium between Washington and his fiancee, Mary Ella Smith, on that memorable night in 1983 when Washington claimed victory in the mayoral race. Photos of that moment, when a beaming Newhouse held their hands high in the air, still decorate the homes of many black Chicagoans. And Newhouse returned the favor as leader of a group of independents whose lawsuit eventually broke the 29-21 City Council division that rendered Mayor Washington virtually impotent during most of his first term. The suit, seeking new ward boundaries, resulted in a court decision that led to new elections and the 25-25 aldermanic standoff. This in turn gave the mayor–with his tie-breaking vote–the opportunity to wheel freely at last.
“That’s what Dick’s career has been about all along,” says Jesse Washington, manager of Newhouse’s south- side office and a longtime supporter. “He’s opened the way for others.”
So why don’t we hear more about–and from–Dick Newhouse these days? Why isn’t he a candidate on the Harold Washington Party ticket, or at least a respected elder statesman for African-American interests? Why aren’t his opinions sought out and his comments duly noted in the media? Why was he so invisible during the Washington administration that Alton Miller, Washington’s press secretary, does not once mention Newhouse’s name in his 368-page chronicle of those years? Why, after all this time, is Newhouse still in the first political office he ever sought?
One day recently I walked along 71st Street with Senator Newhouse, less than half a block from his office. A well-dressed man in his early 30s who was walking toward us eyed the senator quizzically; clearly, he was combing his memory for a name. Then he said, “Good afternoon, judge!” I wondered if the man had confused Newhouse with R. Eugene Pincham, a mix-up Newhouse would not especially appreciate. Newhouse did not speculate; he returned the greeting and chuckled a little to himself. He has grown accustomed to his ambiguous position in public life.
There are many reasons offered for the relative obscurity of the man, and they can be summed up in a few words: too independent, too integrationist, too private, too old. And then there’s the other one, the one that’s been with him from the start: Richard Newhouse has a white wife. In many sections of black Chicago, that’s the clincher that closes every discussion. “You can dig all you want,” says south-side mortgage banker and author Dempsey Travis. “That’s what you’re going to come up with, that’s what you’re going to hear.” Travis, who has probably interviewed more Chicago blacks than any person alive for his popular books on politics, jazz, and racism, hastens to say he himself does not dismiss Newhouse on that basis. But, he adds, “that’s what I hear on the street about Dick Newhouse: ‘He talks black but he sleeps white.'”
I asked Newhouse about this recurring put-down of him, over his choice 30 years ago of the woman to whom he’s married, the mother of his three children. “It’s baloney!” he says. “It’s an excuse. I don’t spend time with it; there’s no public discussion. I present myself as I am. I’ve never hidden my wife.” But he acknowledges that her race has been a problem with some of his constituents, commenting “I guess race runs deep on both sides of the divide.”
Newhouse’s interracial marriage has always been “his biggest problem,” says Lu Palmer, veteran activist and chairman of the Black Independent Political Organization; and today Palmer thinks it’s bigger than ever. “I hear what people are saying on my radio program [on WVON],” he says, “and the perception now is that an African American married to a white is unable to give 100 percent to the cause.”
Carol Moseley Braun, who is black, says she knows the complications well since she was married for many years to a “white Anglo-Saxon male.” She notes, “An interracial marriage really restricts your political options. The blind reaction of some people is just horrible.” She recalls vividly the anger expressed toward Newhouse when he attended the 1972 Black Political Convention in Gary with his wife. “People turned on Dick right there,” she says. “They wanted her sent out immediately.”
Richard Newhouse’s white wife is the most concrete symbol of a commitment to integration that has characterized his political career from day one. His 13th Senatorial District (formerly the 24th) covers Hyde Park and parts of South Shore and Woodlawn. The racial makeup is about 60 percent black and 40 percent white. But for his white independent support, Newhouse might well have been eliminated from the legislature before the dawn of the Harold Washington era. “I really think he would have been dumped in an all-black district, when the machine exercised full control,” says Braun. “So really, he’s been able to be effective because of racial integration, and in that sense, his wife has been an asset, not a liability.”
Newhouse concurs with that view, and he continues to regard full, unqualified integration as the ultimate solution to America’s racial problem. But Palmer, whose ear is always close to the ground, argues that in most of Chicago’s African American community today, integration is a “dirty word.”
“I think Dick Newhouse is stuck in that Hyde Park niche,” he says. “He’s reached a plateau and faded out. Leaders who are called integrationists are ridiculed. People understand today the treachery of the integration concept. It’s the worst thing that ever happened to us . . . because we let whites both define the problem and then implement the solution. Since we’ve had so-called integration, we’ve had nothing but a decline in our schools and our businesses and a massive increase in poverty.” The answer, Palmer believes, is not integration but black self-determination–the sort of thing the Harold Washington Party is trying to activate politically.
In a sense, says Al Ragland, history passed Newhouse by when citizens got caught up on the black-only agenda. “I think it’s a bitter pill to swallow for someone like Dick who has fought for so long for justice in the most corrupt clout city in the world . . .”
Although Newhouse believes in self-determination, he rejects Palmer’s separatism as hopelessly unrealistic. He calls the Harold Washington Party “a bunch of guys who are prostituting Harold’s name. He would have kicked them in the shins if they even thought of assuming leadership of anything! It’s an excuse, it’s pimping off a name. What is the substance, where is the program?” Pincham really sets him off: “You couldn’t find this guy during the civil rights movement. He was making his money as a criminal lawyer, defending some of the biggest thugs who preyed on the black community; that’s how he made his money!”
Paul Green, a political analyst at Governors State University, says Newhouse would never be happy espousing a black agenda, and he concurs that the Harold Washington Party is an exercise in futility. “It’s nothing more than self-imposed political apartheid,” he says, “a way for blacks to take themselves out of the game.”
Indeed, there is evidence elsewhere that history is not so much passing up Newhouse as it is Chicago’s advocates of the all-black agenda, who may be barricading themselves inside an unfortunate time warp. When David Dinkins recently won the mayoralty in New York City and L. Douglas Wilder the governor’s election in Virginia, they both succeeded by an explicit appeal to both white and black interests–by the politics of integration.
To be sure, Newhouse’s fabled independence has not always sat well even with his independent allies. Political consultant Don Rose, who finds his voting record excellent, says Newhouse never actually integrated himself within the independent movement. “He’s never become the leader,” Rose says, “never developed the style or the excitement we hoped for. He’s always out there by himself.” And, adds Rose, Newhouse is not as bright as he seems: “With him, I think, there’s a lot less than meets the eye.”
Currently, Newhouse is no darling of the press. His name appeared in Chicago Tribune stories only twice between 1982 and 1989. Laura Washington, editor of Chicago Reporter, says, “The media doesn’t know who he is anymore. We don’t get any press releases from him, no PR. He doesn’t seem to have much media savvy.”
The walls of the 13th District offices on 71st Street a block west of Jeffery Boulevard are covered with plaques honoring the senator–from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Black American Law Students Association, the National Conference of Black Political Scientists; from the Illinois Campaign for Family Stability, the Chicago Bar Association, Malcolm X College, the Illinois Concerned Veterans From Vietnam. He has won six outstanding-legislator awards from the Independent Voters of Illinois and its successor IVI-IPO (they’re given every two years, usually to only two or three state senators). The awards flow from the big front room into Newhouse’s tiny private office in the back, where he also displays a few photographs from memorable moments in his political career and a large color portrait of Harold Washington. This is in all other respects a modest office. His secretary and office manager handle routine business amid files jammed with aging documents and tables strewn with leaflets, old campaign materials, and, oddly enough, back issues of Prairie Farmer magazine. In his own space, Newhouse is friendly and open, although all those years of speech making have taken a toll. He sometimes seems to be addressing an assembly even when there’s only one other person in the room.
He vigorously denies that he’s a has- been or media recluse. He’s moving in new, less visible directions, he explains, because “the cutting edge has changed.” He’s in an “experimental mode,” trying to get a more unified, holistic view of what’s wrong with America. His focus is no longer just the urban poor but middle-class whites as well, both urban and rural.
“We’re getting to the point where white people have to realize the politics of exclusion is killing them. When blacks were a small minority in the United States, a conscious decision was made: Let’s keep them out of the economy. We’ll pay for it; it won’t make any difference. Nobody expected this population explosion or the impact it would have on the general economy. The costs of exclusion have risen so high because of welfare, crime, bad education, and unemployment that the people who excluded us are getting into desperate shape. The retired construction worker trying to live off a fixed pension is starving, literally starving because he doesn’t have enough money. And the pension cannot be raised because of the incredible numbers of tax consumers, tax money users. . . . I would like to put together a cost-benefit sheet as a way of jolting some people into reality. It would show how much it’s costing you to send a youngster to jail. We need to think twice about this closed economy we’ve got.”
Newhouse illustrates his point by considering the trade unions, a longtime favorite whipping boy of his. “Here’s the way it works for some folks,” he says. “If you’re absolutely stupid and lazy, there’s a track for you. On your 17th birthday you get an apprentice card. You earn money and become a journeyperson. You work at that and you make 20 bucks or so an hour and that permits you to raise a family. Now if you ain’t completely stupid, you go from that journeyman position to becoming a contractor. And if your brother-in-law can keep the books, you bring him in and you expand. Now the second generation comes along and they become the bankers and the professional people. It’s all laid out. What’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with that is my guys are actively barred from doing it. Even the black guys that get through do it a different way. The qualifications are higher and the limitations are there. The glass ceiling is there. So they move in the only directions that are available.”
He speaks of one of the “kids” from his district, a brilliant young man with entrepreneurial ability who grew up on 64th Street and who refused to be bound by the limitations of the system. “He went to school, got his degree, and came back to Chicago as part of a national corporation with branch offices in every city in this country and with international ties.” The young man is Jeff Fort, and, says Newhouse, Stateville was his school, crime is his career, and the drug business for those like him is just taking off. “The next step is direct contact, direct deals, between the big dealers in the ghetto and the Latin American drug cartel,” he says.
Lately Newhouse has found audiences more receptive to his ideas (and ominous predictions) in downstate Illinois than in the Chicago area. He frequently addresses farm bureau and agricultural conferences, criticizing the ongoing “warfare” between Chicago and downstate legislators and urging cooperation between hurting farm communities and hurting urban centers. He wants to develop a nonprofit think tank he calls Futures Project Inc., which would bring together policymakers, researchers, academics, and officials from government agencies to “look at this whole thing as a continuum that goes from conception to death.” Though the project has received major coverage (and aroused great reader interest) in the Prairie Farmer, it remains in the concept stage.
But clearly, age and family concerns also play a part in his decreased local visibility. His energy is not as boundless as before, his memory for names and dates not as keen as it once was. He devotes considerable time to his only son, who is now 27 and handicapped. (His two daughters, neither married, are 30 and 25.) “My family deserves more attention than I’ve given them,” he says. “They’ve been patient with me all these years while I’ve exercised my fantasies.”
He was born in Louisville, the third oldest of the four children of Richard and Annie Newhouse. A powerful early influence was his grandfather, Octavius Singleton, a “thunder and lightning” preacher who founded a refuge for poor and displaced children during the Great Depression. Called the National Home Finding Society, it gave young Newhouse a firsthand view of abject poverty as well as an appreciation of social activism. His father was principal of the school connected with the refuge. “Just about everyone on both sides of my family were schoolteachers,” he chuckles. “They taught in these mostly small Negro schools in the Louisville area, so nobody got very rich.”
Newhouse observed early the absence of opportunity in the black community. “There were no black-owned businesses or factories,” he says, “no black professional people, no basis at all for a self-supporting economic community.” He had one uncle who was an insurance salesman and always wore a suit and tie. “That was so unusual,” says Newhouse, “that I assumed he must be some kind of criminal. Ordinary folks did not dress that way.”
School teaching afforded his family a measure of respectability in the community, but everyone knew that whites, not blacks, determined who had real status. Blacks who wanted to get ahead worked at least part-time as waiters in the upper-class, whites-only restaurants, often earning more in one night than they would in a week at their regular job. Those who attained head-waiter positions were automatically regarded as the social elite within the black community. “Whites determined our movers and shakers,” says Newhouse; and that situation, he later found, tended to repeat itself in big-city politics. His own father, he added, never sought the waiter road to respectability.
Newhouse attended Central Colored High School in Louisville and later Louisville Municipal College for the Colored. He decided to bypass the family trade, teaching, and concentrated instead on a career in electronics. But World War II intervened. In 1943, at the age of 19, he found himself at Fort Monmouth, Kentucky. He took an aptitude and intelligence test for recruits interested in applying to West Point and did so well that his incredulous Army superiors required him to take a second test on which he did even better. “The next thing I knew,” says Newhouse, “I was ordered to a camp in Virginia to work with a Signal Corps construction battalion putting up telephone poles.” He laughs heartily at the incongruity. “I was irate and raised hell,” he adds, “but not terribly surprised. I took that test because I believe every now and then you win a victory, and when the opportunity is there, you have to go for it.”
Newhouse’s company landed on Omaha Beach in France ten days after D day in 1944. They strung up lines between the front and the command post in the rear. “Oh, we got shot at some,” he says, “and I saw the results of battle, like a cow up in a tree.” But he returned to America intact.
Seeing no future in his home state, Newhouse bought a train ticket “for as far north as I could go.” He landed in Boston and used his GI Bill benefits to attend Boston College and later Boston University, where he earned a degree in journalism. Showing a flair for entrepreneurship, Newhouse took out a loan during his school years and bought a small apartment building in Boston. His tenants included young Martin Luther King Jr., who was then courting his future wife Coretta, and Edward Brooke, who later became a U.S. senator from Massachusetts.
After graduation, Newhouse discovered that newspapers were not hiring black reporters, so he wandered through a series of jobs: to Nashville’s Fisk University as a public relations writer, to New York City as a publishing-house sales rep, and to the Chicago Defender as an ad salesman. Deciding to get serious about a career, he went back to school on the GI Bill and earned a law degree at the University of Chicago while working part-time as a social worker. Meanwhile, he married Kathie Vetterlein, a young woman he had met in the integrated, accepting environs of the U. of C. He landed a job with the legal staff of the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Chicago.
In the mid-1960s, Chicago was caught up in civil rights fervor. The Coordinating Council of Community Organizations (CCCO), headed by schoolteacher Al Raby, was seeking out concerned young lawyers to assist in its activities–one of which was getting arrested demonstrators out of jail. Newhouse and some lawyer friends volunteered their services. After Dr. King spent the summer of 1966 in Chicago, which he called “the most segregated city in the north,” CCCO leadership looked around to determine if it could solidify its position with some political victories. One of the most vulnerable holdings of the regular Democratic Party, they determined, was the south side’s 24th Legislative District, where black destitution stood only a few blocks from academic opulence. The state senator from the district, Nathan Kinally, was not well known and not very popular. A five-member CCCO committee considered two possible candidates to oppose Kinally in the 1966 election: Timuel Black, an experienced political organizer, and Richard Newhouse. Don Rose says it was generally assumed that Black would get the nod, but Black was so incensed at being put on a par with newcomer Newhouse that he made a loud, angry presentation to the committee and was consequently nixed. Newhouse became CCCO’s man.
“The campaign was based on sheer bravado,” Newhouse laughs. “We were a ragtag group with volunteers from CCCO, the IVI, and other Hyde Park organizations, but I don’t remember ever doubting I’d win. The enthusiasm was tremendous and the regular Democrats never mounted a strong campaign.” Nor have they since in any of Newhouse’s five successful bids for reelection.
The 1966 victories of Newhouse and Charles Chew (who became state senator from the 29th District) marked a historic moment in Chicago politics–the first racial cracks in a previously invulnerable machine. Mayor Daley was inclined to consider the results a fluke–and was reassured when the wily Chew, the day after his election as an independent, renounced his errant ways, struck a deal with the Daley organization, and became thereafter a permanent if somewhat quirky cog in the machine. Not so Newhouse. He was called to the Bismarck Hotel for a special meeting of regular Democratic leaders, which then included blacks Ralph Metcalfe, Claude Holman, and Kenneth Campbell. They sat at a small conference table, recalls Newhouse, and the only empty seat was the one to his left. After some preliminary talk about street crime, Marshall Korshak, Democratic committeeman for Hyde Park’s Fifth Ward, made the offer. “We would like you to come into the organization,” he told Newhouse. “It’s just like a marriage. I’ll vote you in.”
Surprised at his sudden popularity, Newhouse retorted bluntly, “Isn’t there supposed to be a courtship before marriage?” An awkward silence prevailed. Moments later, Mayor Daley walked into the room and sat at Newhouse’s left. But the conversation drifted off into banality when it was obvious that no Chew-like arrangement was imminent. To this day, Newhouse is convinced Daley planned to arrive at just the moment young Newhouse was pondering Korshak’s proposal, and by sitting to Newhouse’s left, out of his vision, the mayor could signal his men at the table the sort of concessions they might offer. Newhouse’s intransigence, however, doomed the proceedings. And the senator has never been given a second chance.
In Springfield, Newhouse luxuriated in freedom. Answerable only to his constituents and his own convictions, he took leadership positions on issues like equal employment opportunity, affirmative action, open housing, labor union reform, and school integration. He found a kindred soul and mentor in none other than the Republican governor, Richard Ogilvie. “The man had absolute integrity,” he says, “a sincere concern for minority progress, the best governor I ever served under.” His close association with Ogilvie, he believes, enabled him to get state aid for Malcolm X College, Provident Hospital, and other institutions both inside and outside his district.
But he was stamped as a maverick–a freewheeling Democrat who did not hesitate to huddle with Republicans. His citywide recognition grew when in 1970 he stood in front of South Shore’s Bryn Mawr Elementary School, which was under siege by gang recruiters, and announced that the neighborhood would put up with the gangs no longer. And his national recognition mounted when he put together the Black Legislative Clearinghouse, a pioneering organization that brought together black elected officials from more than a dozen states for conferences and discussions in Chicago and Springfield. Those meetings drew people like Merv Dymally of California and George Brown of Colorado–each of whom would later become his state’s lieutenant governor. “Those meetings were so valuable you could never put a price on them,” says Brown, now retired from politics and a consultant for the Grumman Aviation Corporation. “We learned from each other’s experience so we could stop reinventing the wheel in our individual states. We learned how to fine-tune laws and give them a minority direction. And we formed relationships that proved invaluable.”
The Clearinghouse, which evolved eventually into the National Black Legislative Association, was studied carefully by minority politicians and became something of a model for later groups like the National Black Caucus of Local Elected Officials (for mayors and city council members) and the Congressional Black Caucus.
Newhouse was conducting a session of the Clearinghouse in 1971 when he made a bold move that brought him instant fame and long-term heartburn. The Illinois Senate, preparing for a vote on internal reorganization, found itself divided down the middle: 29 Republicans and 29 Democrats. If everyone voted the party line, control of the senate would go to the Democrats by reason of Lieutenant Governor Paul Simon’s tie-breaking vote. One defection from either side would hand control to the opposing party. When his Democratic colleagues called for a caucus, Newhouse boycotted the event, throwing party regulars into a panic. If they wanted his vote, he then declared, the Democrats would have to agree to name a black as president pro tem of the senate–something Democratic leaders had no intention of doing on their own. Cecil Partee, then a state senator, approached Newhouse, said he should be the chosen black by reason of his long political experience and connections, and asked Newhouse to stand up for him. Newhouse hesitated. He says now that he regarded Partee then as “part of that vicious system that molds the kinds of leaders whose job it is to sell out their own people . . . leaders for whom party loyalty never means community loyalty.” His Clearinghouse associates urged Newhouse to spurn Partee and to demand the presidency for himself or at least for a less machine-tied black than Partee. But for reasons that have grown dim to Newhouse over the years, he succumbed. Partee is the choice, he announced, and the Democrats accepted the deal.
When on June 6, 1971, he cast the fateful vote that made Cecil Partee the first black to head any state legislative chamber since Reconstruction, Newhouse had his wife, three children, mother, sister, niece, and nephew in the senate gallery. He told reporters, “Someday my kids will ask, ‘What did you do when you were a senator?’ And I decided to let them see for themselves.”
That vote Newhouse now regards as “the worst mistake I ever made” and its aftermath as “the most painful experience of my life.” Partee, he says, proceeded to be, if anything, even more unresponsive to independent concerns and an even more robotlike servant of the Chicago machine than he’d been in the past. “The chill set in the day after the vote,” says Newhouse. “It was the old days all over–worse, I think, because a black can do more damage to a people and their hopes than a white can.”
The more he thought about what he’d done, the worse he felt; stomach acids started to flow, and later in ’71 he wound up in the hospital with a severe ulcer. He has had occasional recurrences since.
Yet Newhouse’s willingness to hold the august Illinois Senate hostage to his demands, his exercise of pure political power, excited the imagination of many black voters and earned him a place of honor. In 1973, when talk of a black mayor first began to circulate, Newhouse’s was the name most often mentioned, usually the only name mentioned. The talk turned into a rumble following allegations of brutality against black citizens by Daley’s police force. Newhouse was outspoken on the subject, but leadership in the antibrutality campaign was quickly (and surprisingly) seized by U.S. representative Ralph Metcalfe, hitherto Daley’s black man in Washington. The occasion of Metcalfe’s conversion was an apparently unprovoked beating administered by police to his own dentist and chief fund-raiser, Dr. Herbert Odom. But the wily old Metcalfe also perceived a change in the wind: black political subservience was no longer acceptable to black voters; a kind of parade was getting under way and he wanted to get in front of it.
The Committee to Elect a Black Mayor was organized, with Newhouse and Metcalfe both receiving consideration. No one really thought a black could win in the 1975 Democratic mayoral primary, partly because there was little money and next to no organization, and partly because Alderman William Singer had mounted a serious, well-financed anti-Daley campaign that was attracting independent support. Nevertheless, the committee decided to press Metcalfe to make a run for it. At the last moment Metcalfe said no, giving his own support to Singer and urging other blacks to follow his example. Perhaps still chafing from his own reluctance to push harder in the Partee affair, Newhouse declared he would run for mayor himself–with or without anyone’s support. He plunked down the first contribution–$100 from his own pocket.
Though few remember it, he put on a colorful, controversial fight, repeatedly pointing out the inconsistencies of party politics. “Ralph Metcalfe has criticized the Daley regime as dictatorial, arrogant, and overaged,” he said, “yet indicated he would still support it in the April general election should Singer be defeated in the February primary. Like Congressman Metcalfe, I also am opposed to the record of Daley’s administration. My opinion of it, however, will not change next month.”
Wealthy blacks spurned him. “He hasn’t a snowball’s chance in hell,” one “prominent businessman” told the Chicago Tribune, “and he’s not getting one penny from me.”
Labor would not touch him because he regularly accused the construction trades of discrimination, of “having a pact with the devil.”
Progressive women’s groups were offended because he would not support the Equal Rights Amendment. He took that stand, he says, because ERA was “distracting too many committed women from the pervasive problems of broken families and damaged, unnurtured children.” (He reversed his ERA stand toward the end of the campaign.)
Still, he made some inroads. One night he attended a candidates’ forum at a restaurant in the all-white, racially tense Gage Park neighborhood. Instead of decrying prejudice, he began by asking the audience how many had moved three times, how many two times, how many once because of south-side neighborhood flight. When nearly everyone’s hand was in the air, Newhouse made an impassioned plea for interracial understanding, arguing that the problems can never be solved on one side of the racial divide. He was warmly applauded and several in the audience engaged him in conversation afterward and even asked him to stay around for a few drinks. Remembering where he was, Newhouse said, “No thanks; I’ll stay as long as everyone’s sober, but if you folks are drinking, I’m gone.”
The political pros called him a lone wolf, a black knight, a Hyde Park Don Quixote, and some of his old independent friends railed at him for taking votes away from Singer. In the crowded 1975 Democratic primary, Daley won easily, amassing some 53 percent of the vote; despite endorsements from the major newspapers, Singer got 34 percent; Newhouse got a mere 8 percent; and several stragglers, including former Cook County state’s attorney Edward Hanrahan, divided the rest.
That tiny 8 percent could not be dismissed out of hand. It constituted some 60,000 votes, with at least a smattering from every ward in the city. Analysts noted, too, that the combined Singer and Newhouse vote exceeded Daley’s in every majority black ward. And given that Newhouse raised only $14,000, it was obvious that he had spent far less per vote than any other candidate.
Typically upbeat, Newhouse said, “We proved two points: the black community does not automatically belong to the Democratic organization, and there are white votes out there for a black candidate. In other words, the Daley machine is not omnipotent.” These points were recalled eight years later when the Harold Washington for Mayor Committee pondered its prospects.
Newhouse’s reelection efforts in his own district are usually low-key. He does not have and never has needed an ongoing local organization–which is fortunate, because he has no patronage jobs to offer to attract one. When election time nears, a group of loyal volunteers moves through the community, citing his record. Many, like Mars Ketchum, have been with him many years. “I go back to the civil rights days,” says Ketchum, the named plaintiff in the lawsuit that eventually changed ward boundaries, halted Council Wars, and untied Mayor Washington’s hands. “I supported Charley Chew when he was an independent and Sammy Rayner [the legendary black Republican alderman of the late 60s], and I’ve got nothing but respect for Dick. He’s a good public servant . . . stayed with it even when he’s taken a beating in the public arena.”
On occasion, Newhouse’s ad hoc band of supporters has roused itself to assist kindred spirits in other political races. For example, they came to the aid of Harold Washington in 1976, when the Democratic organization, fearing Washington’s emerging status, tried to steal away his seat in the Illinois House of Representatives by adding two more candidates with the surname Washington to the primary ballot. The plan was to fool less than astute voters into picking the wrong Washington. Thanks to the influx of outside campaign workers, the ruse did not work.
Regularly over the years, Newhouse has dropped hints about running for higher office–for governor, for mayor again, for Congress. He showed a more than passing interest in the mayoral race in 1979 and again in 1983–only to be flattened by the Byrne and Washington steamrollers. During the Jane Byrne administration, he was one of Byrne’s earliest and most consistent critics, chiding her within a few months of election for making arbitrary cutbacks in health and social service programs and disbanding the Chicago Commission on Human Relations, while at the same time tripling the size of her personal staff. When the black community marshaled itself against Byrne, boycotting ChicagoFest in 1982, Newhouse was the only state senator in the front lines.
According to an account reported by several persons close to the senator, Newhouse and Washington made an informal deal during their latter years in the General Assembly: should the opportunity come, one of them would make a serious run for the Chicago mayoral seat and the other for Congress. When Washington was elected to Congress (from the First Congressional District) in 1981, Newhouse assumed he would have the inside track (and Washington’s support) for a run at City Hall in 1983. So when Washington later succumbed to a draft by black leaders, Newhouse felt betrayed, some saying that the two men actually came close to blows.
“Not so,” says Newhouse, “total fabrication. I never really saw much support for me in the 1983 race. Those with an all-consuming black passion would not easily support a representative from an integrated community in the mayor’s office.” Lu Palmer and other framers of the black agenda had “ongoing ties and experience with Washington,” he says, “so that, in a sense, Washington was preselected for the post.” And, he adds ominously, “there is no relationship between the Palmers of this world and Dick Newhouse.”
Some have suggested the ideal place for Newhouse’s talent would have been Washington. Says veteran supporter Jesse Washington, “I can’t tell you why he never got serious about it. In Washington, D.C., he would have been a rabbit in a briar patch.” Newhouse responds that he doesn’t see Congress as “the appropriate scene of combat” for him, since his focus is more on local issues.
After his presentation of Harold Washington to the world on election night in 1983, Newhouse seemed to fade into the woodwork. “There was no break betweeen us,” he says, “but we just didn’t have much contact. I stayed away to let him get comfortable, do what he wanted. It was his baby, his parade, and I am not a hanger-on.” He adds somewhat sadly, “I think we would have had a closer relationship in his second term, but that was not meant to be . . .”
Such are the vagaries of his kind of independence that he has rarely held important leadership positions in the senate despite his seniority. During the 1989 term he was assistant majority leader; that appointment was not renewed in the most recent term. Newhouse is not deterred. When he was first elected in 1966, he planned to serve a term or two and then turn the job over to one of the “kids” he was grooming in politics–like Ellis Cose, Marshall Grigsby, or Carol Moseley Braun. But they have moved in other directions (Cose heads a minority journalism center at UCLA, Grigsby is president of Benedict College in South Carolina, Braun has shifted to county politics). And that is all right with Dick Newhouse. He will stay the course. Politics still excites him. Even the mayoral office, he says with a glint in his eye, “isn’t the farthest thing from my mind.” But the glint fades. “I don’t have time to be mayor,” he says. “I’m too busy doing the sort of things a mayor ought to be doing.”
Says Carol Moseley Braun, “You can’t keep getting beat up as a gladiator for the people for 25 years and still act like a young puppy. Dick Newhouse today is more like an old hound dog at the fire station. He doesn’t waste his energy, but when the alarm sounds, he’s off and running.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.